Tag Archives: The Door

Lashing Out


The Door, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 6th September, 2017


Dougie (Jonathan Watson) is gathering family members to celebrate his 50th birthday – he has an agenda, a presentation to make.  The venue is his ex-wife’s house and Dougie is welcomed by her second husband, Lorenzo (Richard Conlon) who is a bit of a liberal and a smoothie with a penchant for artisanal ale.  Running tech support for his uncle is Aaron (Michael Abubakar), Dougie’s mixed-race nephew. Completing the party are the ex-wife Arlene (Louise Ludgate) and the daughter she shares with Dougie, Molly (Joanne Thomson).    The nature of these relationships emerges along with the purpose of Dougie’s presentation…  He has received an email from an organisation that seeks reparation for the evils of the slave trade – it turns out Dougie is a descendant of a sugar-beet millionaire and slave master.  Prompted by white-man’s guilt and his milestone birthday, Dougie wants to do some good in the world, and has come to ask Arlene to sign over Molly’s college fund.

This production in partnership with Traverse Theatre Company and the National Theatre of Scotland provides a powerful 90 minutes of drama, laced with barbed humour and performed by a strong cast of five who each get their moments to shine, thanks to Douglas Maxwell’s taut and thought-provoking script.   Jonathan Watson is great as the volatile Dougie, contrasting nicely with Richard Conlon’s smooth-talking Lorenzo.  Louise Ludgate impresses as the sarcastic, impassioned Arlene, who has good reason to be cynical and short-tempered where Dougie is concerned, while Joanne Thomson’s Molly goes on a journey of discovery as secrets from the past are wrenched to the fore.  Michael Abubakar’s outbursts as Aaron add intensity to proceedings.

Director Tessa Walker draws us into the play’s discourse first with the amusing naturalism of a comedy of manners, and keeps us hooked with seething animosity, spoken and unsaid.  We suspect from the start the email is some kind of scam but the argument it provokes (that the world we live in is built on the atrocities perpetrated by slavers) is potent – although we don’t agree with Dougie’s means to redress ancient evils.

When the true nature of the scam comes to light, we see that the evils that need redressing aren’t so evil, as Aaron learns the truth about his father’s absence.

Darkly comic and provocative, the piece is in danger of letting its argument overpower our attachment to the characters – it’s one of those where you admire the performers but detest the dramatis personae.  A good advertisement for family gatherings, it is not!  And it shows us that racism, unlike the slave trade, is not a thing of the past.

A slanging match with bite and substance, The Whip Hand stirs up big themes in a domestic setting.  The personal is political and there is nothing more personal nor political than the bitter quarrels of family members.

15. Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate. Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Jonathan Watson and Louise Ludgate (Photo: David Monteith-Hodge)




Changing faces and facing changes


The Door, the REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 17th May, 2016


Stan’s Café continues to be one of the most creative and surprising theatre companies – in Birmingham, at least!  Each show is different and, in this respect, their latest offering is no different – if you see what I mean.

Set in Winnebago on a film set, we meet make-up artist Sue (Alexis Tuttle) and upcoming movie star Kate (Emily Holyoake) and follow their relationship by eavesdropping on their conversations.  While they talk, Sue applies make-up to Kate – instead of a mirror, Kate’s face is projected large on the back wall.  It is endlessly fascinating to watch an artist at work – the piece is co-devised by the cast alongside make-up artist Andrew Whiteoak.  Tuttle has evidently been well schooled.  A relationship develops between the two women, the kind of short-lived but intimate relationship that occurs in showbiz, when people come together but only for the duration of a project.  It is also the kind of relationship familiar from trips to the hairdresser, for example.  We tend to open up to people who approach our heads and faces with sharp objects.

Sudden changes in Simon Bond’s lighting signal changes of conversation.  The play keeps us on our toes as Sue and Kate become other people in each other’s lives: Kate takes a phone call from her mother, her agent… Sue speaks to her estranged daughter…  Gradually, a fractured picture emerges, a piecemeal portrait of each woman’s life, and so, while there is no overt plot, we do chart what their lives are like, personally and professionally, beyond the confines of the Winnebago.  The Winnebago itself is delineated by a framework, an illuminated outline that brings to mind the lightbulbs around a dressing-room mirror – a brilliant idea simply and effectively realised by designer Harry Trow.  The lights add glitz and also warmth to proceedings.

Director James Yarker keeps the performances naturalistic, almost down-played in some instances; we are credited with intelligence enough to work out which conversation we are earwigging at any given moment.  This channel-flicking or radio-tuning effect makes the piece disjointed but ultimately enables it to deliver its most poignant moment, when Sue receives an award for her contribution.

Both actors deliver, with Tuttle being the most obviously versatile, although Holyoake’s role is differently impressive, being confined to the chair as she is, having to signal her range of characters from the neck up, her face writ large behind her.  Which says something about the differences between stage and screen acting, I suppose.

The play puts in the spotlight moments that usually happen off-screen.  The faces Sue applies to Kate, the faces Kate is forced to adopt in her private life, when getting papped, for example.  Subtly, rather than overtly, it suggests we should think about the masks we wear and for what reasons.  A bit of a slow-burner, Made Up’s whole is more than the sum of its parts.  What it lacks in direct punch, it delivers in gentle and amusing discourse.

Alexis Tuttle as Sue and Emily Holyoake as Kate in Made Up_c Graeme Braidwood

Movie trailer: Alexis Tuttle and Emily Holyoake in the Winnebago (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Good Grief!

The Door, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 27th January, 2016


Writer-performer Mohamed El Khatib brings his one-man show dealing with loss and grief to Birmingham. It’s in French – English surtitles are projected on the back wall and on a TV screen – as he reads from his notebook, tells anecdotes, or plays recorded conversations with his late mother. What it amounts to is a documentary-style piece that tells a true story – his mother’s death from liver cancer.

Put like that it sounds a bit grim, doesn’t it?

The experience is certainly not grim at all.

It’s raw, at times; it’s honest and frank. It’s also, perhaps unexpectedly, very funny. Perhaps it helps that, to us, it’s in a foreign language; we British like to be at a bit of a remove from this kind of thing. Reading the subtitles and giving my A Level in French a bit of a workout, has me hanging on every word. I also keep an eye on the performer – El Khatib is gently charismatic. A likeable chap, he is direct and deadpan. The family he tells us about may be French, and Muslim, but we relate to the humanity we have in common. Their foibles are our foibles; the gallows humour universal. The title, it turns out, is ironic.

It’s a glimpse into another way of life – a deeply personal piece – but it’s also a reflection on things we all share. It’s bittersweet, poignant and funny. The conflict with the silent, invisible antagonist brings tragedy, the funeral customs and rituals bring black humour. El Khatib’s matter-of-fact, conversational delivery deals with difficult moments in an absence of sentimentality, making the impact all the more powerful.


mohamed el khatib

Mohamed El Khatib

Grandad, Grandad, you’re lovely…


The Door, Birmingham REP, Friday 15th January, 2015


This new one-woman piece from writer-performer Amahra Spence draws parallels between the experiences of a young black woman in the West Midlands with those of her grandfather who arrived from Jamaica, alone at the age of 16. Spence drops in and out of characters with economy and ease – Grandad is larger-than-life but she never overeggs her portrayal or descends into caricature or stereotype. That said, he does come across as your everyday elderly West Indian bloke! It’s affectionately done, and Spence saves the hardship and the gruelling episodes for the young woman, when the humour is replaced with some vivid, gutsy writing and some harrowing moments of storytelling.

Spence animates her words with gesture and tone of voice – she is clearly in command of the material and the medium. She keeps us hooked, despite sometimes the patois being a bit dense (“It’s all right, I don’t understand what that one’s about” she confesses) and some of the anecdotes having more impact than others. What comes across is a sense of family, and closeness. Collecting Grandad’s stories reveals more about the collector than the storyteller.

Director Daniel Bailey prevents the pared-down staging from becoming static and Spence’s scene and mood changes are supported by some sharp lighting from Ben Pacey and an eclectic soundtrack from Enrico Aurigemma.

It feels like a very personal event. There is honesty and authenticity running through the entire piece. It’s touching, stark, funny and uplifting – an excellent debut from a fresh and frank new playwright.  There is a genuine thrill of delight at the end when she invites the old man himself to join her on stage for a bow. She has evoked him so vividly we feel that we know and love him too.

Amahra Spence in Abuelo_c Graeme Braidwood

Amahra Spence (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)





Chair Man of the Bored


The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 17th September, 2015


Clod Ensemble’s The Red Chair is a one-woman show, written and performed by Sarah Cameron, a contemporary fairy tale somewhat akin to Irvine Welsh doing Roald Dahl. Cameron narrates the story of newlyweds who receive a red chair (its origins are mysterious) and as soon as the husband sits in it, he never gets up again. He stays there for years, eating and eating, while the wife becomes a kitchen slave. While he balloons, she emaciates. Somehow they have a child, a daughter who isolates herself in the attic with books. Eventually, the man grows into the chair, or is it the other way around? And man and furniture become one.

It’s an unrelenting cascade of language, English tinted with Scottish dialect and peppered with French vocabulary. Lyrical and poetic, images come thick and fast – there is a dazzling moment when Cameron reels off a seemingly endless list of food going into the fattening man’s gob. Strangely, this highlight is symptomatic of the piece’s problem for me: I am more impressed by the skills of the charismatic performer, by the torrent of words rather than their meaning and the story they are trying to convey. I find myself unengaged – after the first brief interlude, in which the audience is served madeleines – I can’t get back into the story at all and I am swept along by the music of the speech. I become a little bit bored but I force myself to concentrate and try to keep up. There are other interludes in which we get a date (the edible kind on a cocktail stick), a tot of whisky (hurrah!) and a piece of dark chocolate. I pick up the narrative thread again – there’s been an inheritance windfall and there’s a lighthouse in it now…

I want to like it more than I do. Cameron is so charismatic and expressive, you can’t take your eyes off her. But somehow I’m just not getting it. I suppose it’s the story of how a man’s selfishness ruins a marriage, which in turn blights a young girl’s life, before his redemption through spending time with his daughter. The wife is so much of a victim she cannot extricate herself from her drudgery; it takes a deus ex machina in the form of a windfall to get her out.

Visual and aural interest are maintained by Hansjorg Schmidt’s lighting and Paul Clark’s music, and director Suzy Willson has Cameron making a world of a simple chalk circle and its lone wooden chair, enabling us to cast and set the story in our imaginations. The characters are grotesques, the situation symbolic, but the relentless storm of words is too slippery for me to grasp.

Chair-ismatic: Sarah Cameron in full flow (Photo: Christopher Bethell)

Chair-ismatic: Sarah Cameron in full flow (Photo: Christopher Bethell)

Boxing Clever


The DOOR, The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th May, 2015


This one-man piece written by Geoff Thompson concerns a former boxer, now a trainer, with a message to send. He sets up a camcorder on a tripod and this becomes the focus of his attention and delivery throughout the piece. It as though we are eavesdropping, rather than being addressed directly. He says he wanted to write a letter, an important letter, and so he went to a shop to buy the best paper and the best pen but was advised by the shop assistant that he’d be better off putting his feelings on camera – unlikely, unless she was also selling camcorders, but I’ll let that go – His face, she told him, says more than words.

That face is the familiar and famous face of Christopher Fairbank, known for countless appearances on the big and little screen. You may not know his name but you will have seen him in many things. He delivers a charismatic and captivating performance in what turns out to be a very wordy and complex piece. I find his eloquence does not match his professed inability to put his words on paper – he sounds more like a writer than a boxer (no reason, of course, why he can’t be both) and he seems too at ease with the camera, as if he’s recording the latest in a long line of vlogs rather than attempting to deliver the message that has been burning inside him for years. Better, I think, to see him awkward and fumble initially before finding his voice, rather than pontificating about the nobility of the sport he made his profession. It comes across as storytelling rather than a character revealing himself.

Gradually, it emerges who he’s talking to and what he has to say (I’m trying not to spoil it) and, by the end, when we learn why the play has the title it has, Fairbank is packing quite an emotional punch, a roundhouse right to the heart.

Thompson’s script is well-structured and has lyrical qualities but I think it’s a little over-written and a little too clever. Director Michael Vale somehow manages to avoid the ‘action’ being stilted and static (it is, after all, a bloke on a stool addressing a camera) by keeping our focus on Fairbank and his haggard, human face. You leave the studio moved but it’s been a bit of a slog to get there rather than a knockout punch.


Mountains and Molehills


The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Monday 2nd March, 2015


It’s not every day you get invited to see a play written by a polar bear… Imagine my embarrassment when I realised that Polarbear is the pseudonym of writer Steven Camden! But even so, I’m always keen to see new work from new playwrights.

Camden’s debut piece is a three-hander about three ordinary lads from Smethwick. We spend a weekend in their company on a camping trip to Snowdonia. The trip is a goodbye adventure because one of their number, Luke (Lawrence Walker) is leaving for Leeds University on the following Monday. It’s a one-last good time story, and so a bittersweet vein runs through it.

Ostensibly, Luke is our narrator – although this task is shared almost equally among all three. It’s quick-fire stuff. The writing and the delivery have the brio of a Berkoff, albeit in Brummie accents. The actors bat the story around between them like a ball they’re trying to keep in the air. It’s very funny. Director Tessa Walker keeps that ball bouncing from hand to hand, but at times it does need to slow down just a little. Some clarity is sacrificed on the altar of speed.

Among the bickering and banter, there is a lyrical quality to the writing (again bringing Berkoff to mind) and throughout the boys’ misadventures, encounters and arguments (both heartfelt and petty), we are drawn in, by the characters and by the performers. It’s hard to say who I like more, the fictional creations or the actors bringing them to such entertaining life. Their inevitable parting at the end is poignant without being mawkish. They are to begin the next, as yet, unwritten chapters of their lives. The trio is split, never to be the same again. And that’s very sad – but part of growing up.

Lawrence Walker is very strong as undergraduate Luke, but then so are the other two. Sam Cole’s Tommy and Waleed Akhtar’s Zia come across as rounded characters, and all three actors drop into other characters with skill and ease. Akhtar’s comic timing impresses the most – we can believe Zia’s ambition of becoming a stand-up comedian.

The staging is simple – a red stepladder suggests the tent and a small ramp covered in fake grass is both the car and the Welsh countryside. Simon Bond’s lighting adds atmosphere, picking the actors out in camp firelight, as they embark on a bit of primeval dancing, helping us to paint the scenery described by the characters in our heads.

The play is a portrayal and a celebration of friendship but on another level, beneath the surface, the split of these three (one white, one Asian and one mixed-race) hints at coming divisions in society. As a microcosm for Smethwick, or indeed the UK as a whole, the three friends have rubbed along nicely for years, despite or perhaps because of their differences. It is sobering to think of them going their separate ways and something very special being lost.

Back Down is an exuberant and effective debut. I look forward to Polarbear’s next piece – like a Sealion waiting to be thrown a fish…

Waleed Akhtar (Zia), Sam Cole (Tommy) and Lawrence Walker (Luke) (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

Waleed Akhtar (Zia), Sam Cole (Tommy) and Lawrence Walker (Luke) (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)